December, 2nd: A day to celebrate Astronomy and the history of a nation

On December, 2nd it is celebrated in Brazil the “Day of Astronomy” in honor to the anniversary of the emperor Dom Pedro II (or Peter II, in English) the second and last ruler of the Empire of Brazil, and the patron of arts and sciences of the country.

Pedro II became emperor in 1831, at age of five and reigned Brazil for over 58 years. He had a lonely childhood and adolescence, spending most of the time studying in preparation for rule. So much time spent in between books has made Pedro II an enthusiast of culture and sciences which was greatly valued by his people. He was fluent in 14 languages, including Tupi, a language spoken by a group of Brazilian natives and was friends with Richard Wagner and Louis Pasteur, among others scholars and intellectuals of his time. He became the first Brazilian photographer and had himself, in his palace located at São Cristóvão neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, one laboratory devoted to photography; another to chemistry and physics; three libraries containing over 60,000 books and an astronomical observatory.

Dom Pedro II at age of (approximately) 60 years.

Dom Pedro II at age of (approximately) 60 years.

The story of Astronomy in Brazil started two years earlier, before the birth of Pedro II, with the foundation of the National Observatory (ON, in the Portuguese acronym) in October, 15th 1827 by his father, Dom Pedro I. ON’s building was located in the city center of Rio de Janeiro at the Castelo Hill and had as initial mission to conduct geographic studies of the countries’ lands, determine the official time of Brazil, produce astronomical and meteorological data, as well as provide training courses in Astronomy to students from the military and naval academies. Due to a series of reasons, the Observatory only began to operate in the middle of that century.

However, it was Pedro II who reorganized the Observatory and, in 1870, appointed the French astronomer Emanuel Liais as director, who would initiate a period during which many astronomical projects were developed at the Observatory, among them:

  •    the scientific expedition undertaken to Punta Arenas to observe the transit of Venus across the solar disk in 1882;
  •    the participation in the Carte du Ciél project with the goal of performing observations of the Southern sky and complete the catalog data;
  •    the expedition to the town of Sobral, in the State of Ceará, Brazil, on May, 29th 1919, coordinated by Henrique Charles Morize, ON’s director of that period, to photograph the solar eclipse, whose results have helped to confirm Einstein’s Theory of Gravity;
  •    a great number of expeditions to the countryside of Brazil with the goal of establishing the countries’ frontiers through precise measurements of the latitude and longitude of those sites.
Expedition coordinated by ON's director Luis Cruls to establish the territory of what would become the Federal District of Brazil. Credit: MAST.

Expedition coordinated by ON’s director Luis Cruls to establish the territory of what would become the Federal District of Brazil. Credit: MAST.

ON is one of the oldest scientific institutions of Brazil. Curiously, in 1922, the Observatory was transferred from Castelo Hill to the Hill of São Januário, also in the neighborhood of São Cristovão, where until today is the location of its headquarters. In 1985, a museum dedicated to the history of Astronomy and related sciences in Brazil, occupying the historic buildings and antique telescope domes, originally safeguarded by ON, was inaugurated. The so-called Museu de Astronomia e Ciências Afins (MAST, in the Portuguese acronym) shares the same campus with the new installations of ON in São Cristóvão, a neighborhood with several historical buildings related to the life of Pedro II and the imperial family and which, one cannot avoid relating to the history of the production of scientific knowledge in Brazil.

MAST and ON installations in São Cristóvão, Rio de Janeiro. Credit: MAST.

MAST and ON installations in São Cristóvão, Rio de Janeiro. Credit: MAST.

In 2015, MAST, an institution under the Brazilian Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, completes its 30th anniversary. The institution is dedicated to the production of scientific knowledge, leading research in the fields of History of Science; Museology and Astronomy Heritage; and Education in Sciences in non-formal settings. Activities and exhibitions organized by MAST represent a dialogue between Astronomy, History and Philosophy. The essence of the activities offered by MAST is the interaction with visitors and society.

Preparing the 21cm refractor dome to observe the night-sky. Credit: MAST.

Preparing the 21cm refractor dome to observe the night-sky. Credit: MAST.

MAST offers several activities to schools in the week days and during the weekends the activities aimed at the general public. Among the visitors, MAST most beloved activity occurs every Saturday night, when the telescopes, over a century-old, as well as some modern models are made available for the public to gaze the sky. Some academic studies conducted by the researchers of the institution have shown that the perception of the public that participates in an outreach activity that uses a historical instrument is different than if a modern model is used. The public recognizes the historical value of the instrument and is able to express that a differentiated experience in the field of emotions and feelings has taken place (COSTA, 2009). This makes the public’s experience more than a different one, but an interesting one! I guess Pedro II would be proud to learn about that! Happy Astronomy Day to all!

Playing with Georg Marggrafe quadrant's model, which is believed to be an astronomical instrument of the first observatory of the Southern Hemisphere. Credit: MAST.

Playing with Georg Marggrafe quadrant’s model, which is believed to be an astronomical instrument of the first observatory of the Southern Hemisphere. Credit: MAST.


pic0_patiPatrícia Figueiró Spinelli (@pati_spinelli) is a Brazilian astrophysicist based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She earned her Ph.D in Astrophysics from the Ludwig Maximilians University Munich, Germany, where she has worked on Gravitational Lensing in its weak regime. Currently, she works as a researcher in the field of Non Formal Education and Cultural Astronomy and acts as the public astronomer at the Museum of Astronomy and Related Sciences (MAST) in Brazil. She is also an active member of the GalileoMobile outreach project since 2008.

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